Spartan: Total Warrior E3 2005 Pre-Show Hands-On

Creative Assembly's first console game features hundreds of soldiers, expansive battlefields, and a Spartan's-eye view of the carnage. We hack away at a new demo.

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Sega's GDC revelation that it had acquired UK-based Creative Assembly came as a shock to fans of the strategy-minded developer, but even that wasn't as shocking to those fans as the company's announcement of a new console-only battlefield action game. We got to spend some time with a demo version of Spartan: Total Warrior at a Sega press event and found that, despite the game's similarity to hack-and-slash action games like Dynasty Warriors, Total Warrior looks to be anything but a button masher.

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As the name implies, the game will cast you as a lone Spartan warrior fighting alongside Greek forces against the advances of the power-hungry Roman Empire. From what we saw, the game's 14 levels will be highly varied. Some levels will take place on open battlefields with scores of soldiers onscreen at once (the engine supports more than 150), while others will take place in more constrained areas with fewer, more powerful foes. We even saw one mission that required a degree of stealth as your Spartan attempted to approach an enemy camp and disable its defenses.

Your objective will rarely be a version of "kill all the enemies to proceed"--rather, each mission will present you with a progression of specific tasks to complete as you cut down the Roman throng. For instance, in the demo we played, we first had to eliminate a series of enemy commanders, then escort a couple of sappers to place explosives at the bases of guard towers, then ignite those explosives to take out the towers and secure the area. And that was just one short section of the level. Later on, we had to juggle several objectives at once, one of which was preventing Roman troops from breaching the gate that held our position, while at the same time firing a series of catapults to take down a massive walking statue that was approaching our fortified wall. The game will purportedly be unafraid to make you face multiple objectives at once, which should help to heighten the already frantic pace of the battles.

The combat controls in Total Warrior are easy to pick up, yet, from what we saw, they seemed to provide a surprising amount of depth as well. You have a basic melee weapon (and shield, if you have a free hand) as well as a bow and arrow at your disposal, and the controls allow you to attack one enemy or multiple enemies depending on which attack button you hit. When you're using a one-handed weapon, your shield will be immensely useful. In fact, it seemed to us that failure to properly defend yourself will be a sure path to defeat. In addition to blocking enemy attacks with the shield, you can use it in an offensive manner just like your weapons: hitting the multi-attack button will bash multiple enemies and knock them back, while using the single-attack button will knock an enemy to the ground, after which you can perform a one-hit finishing move.

Spartan's combat model doesn't focus on canned combos that require specific button sequences. Instead, you'll simply use this combination of melee, ranged, and shield attacks against single or multiple enemies, depending on the situation. In our experience, doing this makes the combat feel impressively fluid and dynamic. You'll start off with only a basic one-handed short sword and shield, but later in the game you'll gain other weapons, like a massive pike, a heavy war hammer, and dual short swords. Of course, different weapons will have different properties: the hammer is slower to attack, for instance, while the short swords obviously don't provide as much defensive capability as a trusty shield. But the simplicity of the game's combat will make it easy for you to adapt to a new weapon immediately, since all the weapons share the same controls.

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As you plow through wave after wave of Romans, the gods will take note of your combat style, and you'll receive the occasional accolade from Athena, Mars, or whichever deity you've impressed depending on the sort of combat--melee, ranged, and so on--you choose to emphasize. These kudos will translate into skill-point bonuses that you can cash in at the end of a battle, allowing you to improve your Spartan's abilities in the respective categories. Essentially, you'll get to grow your character into a warrior that fits your preferred style of play, and you'll see him accumulate new equipment and generally look more buff as you get more powerful.

We got to look at the PS2 version of Spartan, and even on the least powerful of the current three consoles, the game is sporting sharp, clean visuals and running smoothly, even with literally scores of onscreen characters. The level design doesn't rely on flat planes, either--you'll navigate staircases and walls in stronghold settings, as well as deal with varied and uneven terrain, as in the outdoor levels we saw. The story will largely be told by in-game cutscenes, and the versions of these we saw were far from final, but they were already looking good. Motion-captured animations and professional voice-over (potentially from some well-known names) will be added in the future to solidify the production values.

We didn't know what to expect from Spartan going into the demo, what with Creative Assembly's obvious strategy-focused history. But we came out decidedly impressed by the game's dynamic combat and robust technology, which accommodates truly large-scale battlefield action. And strategy fans, don't worry...the company says the Total War series will continue unabated while it also branches out into new console territory. Territory, which, if this game is any indication, will be treaded with some degree of skill. Spartan: Total Warrior is due out in September. Look for more on the game soon.

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